Picture a hot bowl of Vietnamese pho. What are the first flavours that you think of? Coriander? Mint? Star anise? Cinnamon? Beef? It’s probably a mix of all of the above and more. Distinctive, healthy and flavoursome, fresh herbs are at the centre of Vietnamese cooking, writes Tatyana Leonov.
Herbs have been used throughout Western and Eastern cultures for centuries. Renowned for their freshness, therapeutic properties and ability to entirely alter the taste and texture of a dish, herbs are commonly referred to as plants. “Definitions differ depending on who you talk to – botanists, herbalists, horticulturalists and so on – but vegetables, spices and herbs all have a lot of similarities and overlap in many different ways,” explains Sarah Leung, holistic nutritionist, accredited practising dietitian and owner of Healthy Energy.
Although definitions may vary, it’s a well-known fact that herbs are used frequently across a plethora of cuisines and in all sorts of ways. In Vietnamese cooking in particular, herbs are used to layer, season and accompany meals. In fact, the Vietnamese use the word rau thom for both vegetables and fragrant herbs, because they use both in copious amounts regularly. Raw leaves and stems are stirred into sautés, scattered atop steaming soups, slipped into delicate rice paper rolls, mixed with refreshing salads, and often served on the side too – because the Vietnamese like to be in charge of how their dish tastes.
“The use of fresh and aromatic herbs is one of the most important foundations of traditional Vietnamese cooking,” says Renée Leonard-Stainton, practising naturopath and nutritionist and founder of popular natural health blog reneenaturally.com.
“Vietnamese cooking is often described as ‘fragrant’ and this is in part thanks to the tradition of throwing in herbs while cooking and using them as a garnish. This helps the herbs maintain their subtle fragrance while retaining their optimum nutritional benefits.”
According to Vietnamese philosophy, the health benefits of Vietnamese herbs are plentiful, and it’s often customary to use a whole bunch of different varieties in the one dish. Leung remembers a tour guide at an organic herb farm in Hoi An telling her that Ceylon spinach, okra and chrysanthemum help with arthritis. “He explained that’s why 75-year-old women in Vietnam can still bend down every day without joint problems,” she recollects.
Of course, there are many other herbs that have medicinal benefits too – bitter herb, garlic chives and mustard leaves just to name a few. When combining herbs with chillies, spices and aromatics such as ginger, galangal and turmeric, which all boast their own health benefits, you have a potent phytochemical mix.
Grow your own
It’s ideal to use fresh-picked herbs for the ultimate nutrient punch. In Vietnam, you might be able to head straight to the grower, and farmers and wet markets also offer a good option. Because of the large expat community living in Australia, finding fresh Vietnamese herbs, especially in bigger cities, is relatively easy. Asian grocery stores and markets often have herbs by the bagful, and supermarkets stock quite a few varieties, although these are often found in the refrigerated section and it’s hard to pinpoint how long they’ve been there. “I advise growing your own herbs if possible,” Leonard-Stainton says. “This way you can ensure they are organically grown as well as having the added benefits of the herbs being extremely fresh when you consume them. The fresher the herb, the higher the nutritional content.”
Although recipes are designed to be followed, experimenting with herb amounts can often be fun – the Vietnamese always seem to play around with quantities and you might discover a new favourite dish along the way. Try cooking using fresh herbs more often too. “The modern diet in Australia is packed with processed foods, additives and sodium,” says Leung. “So one way to reduce these in our diet is to start buying more fresh ingredients.” Leung recommends home cooks use spices and herbs as flavours and seasoning to replace bottled sauces, excess sodium and MSG. “Be adventurous. Not only will the food taste better, but it will also be more nutrient dense and provide greater health benefits.”
Although there are plenty of herbs, the most readily available ones that can be used across an assortment of dishes include:
Vietnamese mint – which is interestingly not part of the mint family despite its similar appearance and odour to other mint varieties. “Vietnamese mint can help enhance digestive processes and relieve mild gastric pain when used in cooking,” explains naturopath and nutritionist Renee Leonard-Stainton. “And, traditionally, it was also used in soothing tea and even added to steam baths to improve skin conditions.”
The heat-shaped betel leaf – often used in stews or as a wrap when chargrilling in Vietnamese cooking, has traditionally been used to aid digestion. It’s said to help relieve gas due to its anti-flatulent properties and is also commonly used as a mouth freshener.
Coriander –oneofthemostpopularherbs used in Vietnamese cooking and is considered to be a good source of dietary fibre, vitamins (in particular vitamin C) and minerals like calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. “Many of the healing properties of coriander can be attributed to its exceptional phytonutrient content,” says Leonard-Stainton. “Naturopaths will often recommend increasing consumption of coriander when the body needs to detox, particularly from heavy metal or chemical exposure.”
Rice paddy herb – regularly used in sour fish soup along with tamarind, tomato and okra for a tangy and flavourful punch. According to Will Shannon, one of Australia’s leading iridologists and natural medicine practitioners, “Rice paddy has antibacterial properties.”
Lemongrass – like coriander, it is commonly used throughout Vietnamese cooking, and the essential oil present in lemongrass has antibacterial properties. “Lemongrass is a digestive aid, which is one of the reasons it is commonly incorporated into Vietnamese dishes,” Leonard-Stainton says.
Thai basil – encompasses a few different varieties of basil. The three main ones used in Vietnamese cooking are Thai sweet basil, holy basil and Thai lemon basil. According to experts, these basils collectively have antibacterial, anti-fungal and antioxidant properties.
Perilla (also known as shisho leaf) – another herb that’s often used in soups and teas and recognised in Vietnamese culture for its soothing qualities. “It’s prized for colds and flus as it helps clear the lungs and upper respiratory system,” Shannon says.